In the context of the democratic primary, retired Gen. Wesley Clark's campaign seems less like Sherman's quick and decisive March to the Sea and more like Grant's shaky, protracted offensive against Vicksburg. Initially some were heralding the general's candidacy as the beginning of the end for an already-peaked former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) and an underwhelming Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). But Clark has proven less than prepared, leaving the media -- not Clark -- to define the candidate. He seems increasingly disingenuous, if not outright schizoid: a Democratic contender who had not been a registered as a Democrat; a self-proclaimed outsider with that quintessential token of insiderdom, a Washington lobbying contract; an acerbic critic of the Bush administration who, just over two years ago, lauded the architects of the new Pax Americana at, of all places, a Republican fund raiser; and a self-styled reformer who apparently violated campaign-finance laws by taking money for speeches (he has since returned the money).
It's not exactly the stuff of a Democratic Party standard-bearer -- and perhaps not the stuff of a general-election candidate in a country that despises the wishy-washy. But if his campaign gets its act together and runs the Clark who wowed students and seniors at DePauw University in late September, it might even affect more than Kerry's and Dean's poll numbers. While George W. Bush holds a comfortable lead among both Republican and Democratic voters on national security, many current and former members of the military's officer corps -- as well as some civilian conservatives who increasingly see the neocons for the spendthrifts they are -- have had it with Bush's crew and are poised to become, as one officer put it, "Clark Republicans."
Though it was a far cry from Bobby Kennedy's raucous 1968 reception in another conservative corner of the Midwest, Clark's warm welcome by nearly 3,000 people -- including folks from as far away as St. Louis, Cleveland and Chicago -- in staunchly right-of-center Greencastle, Ind., was significant. Though Clark's hour-long speech began with discursiveness, he soon prompted a string of protracted ovations -- several of them standing -- in response to everything from his denunciations of Attorney General John Ashcroft to calls for a stronger United Nations to negotiations with Iran, Syria and North Korea.
What explains this unlikely enthusiasm? Interviews with a cross section of Hoosiers at the Clark event -- including self-identified Republicans, Democrats and independents -- revealed the view that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have come at the expense of both the U.S. economy and the war on terrorism.
"It's feeling a lot like 1992 with Bush's father," explained Don Hopkins, an Indianapolis real-estate appraiser. "A war with Iraq really doesn't matter when people are out of jobs." Hopkins spent this summer retracing the path of Lewis and Clark, distributing Wesley Clark pamphlets at every stop, and he found that view relatively widespread. "No one refused any of my literature," he said, "and anytime anyone talked, even if they didn't say what their politics were, they were talking about how bad the state of economic and foreign policy are."
Korean War veteran H.J. Trubitt, a retired colonel in Army intelligence and a professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University, met with nods of approval from fellow veterans as he explained to the Prospect his view of Bush versus Clark: "Those of us of my vintage -- those who fought or served in the military during the Cold War -- remember a time when we had leaders, men like [Dwight] Eisenhower, who understood the importance of unifying nations, not just against something but for something. I think a lot of people here are increasingly unhappy with the 'go it alone' approach."
Of course, it's no given that Indiana, a state that hasn't gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, would go from red to blue on account of Clark. And this support for Clark doesn't necessarily signal a larger exodus from the GOP ranks. But Bush does have a weakness that Clark is singularly well-suited to address: When it comes to national security, as The Wall Street Journal noted last month, the president's numbers, though strong, have been dropping among the general public -- and, if anecdotal evidence is any indicator, possibly with active and retired military officers, who went all out for him in 2000. In interviews I conducted this summer with more than three dozen current and former military officers and some of their families, the vast majority proffered variations of the line, "I haven't voted Democratic in two decades, but if Wesley Clark runs as a Democrat, I will."
That some of those officers suggesting a party switch are not entirely enamored of Clark -- they called him, among other things, "earnestly self-confident" and, less charitably, "insufferably arrogant" -- is telling. Better an arrogant president who understands that military strategy works in the service of political grand strategy, they seem to feel, than one whose besting of the Iraqi army some officers considered a dubious geopolitical endeavor that distracted from the war on terrorism and may do little more than replace one unpleasant regime with another.
That frustration with Bush has become more apparent with the formation of the group Military Families Speak Out and a stream of angry postings from deployed personnel sent to Soldiers for the Truth (www.sftt.org), a Web site maintained by decorated combat veteran David Hackworth. What's more, as evidenced by increased back-channel collaborations between some high-ranking brass and the Department of State, the military has about had it with being lectured to by powerful ideologues who have the president's ear. Whatever their "defense intellectual" credentials, these neocons are resented by the military for their condescension, for having never served and for usurping the military's post-Cold War power niche, which embraced diplomacy as well as combat. By putting ideology and geopolitical dreams before everything else in the service of some truly dubious objectives, and by leaving National Guard members and reservists (and their families) to wonder when they will be coming home, Bush has invited serious discord. What's more, while this doesn't necessarily translate into larger conservative civilian defections, some conservatives -- particularly hard-liners on deficit spending -- are growing increasingly restive.
While this may not lead to widespread conservative civilian defections, when one recalls how incredibly close Bush's margin of "victory" was in 2000 (537 votes), it's clear it wouldn't take many to defeat the president. If Clark peeled off some military-family votes along with a smattering of deficit hard-liners and the so-called NASCAR Dads (described by The New York Times as "Bush Republicans who could be won over if a Democratic man's man came along"), it would not make for a happy Karl Rove, indeed.
Clark is uniquely poised to exploit these gaps. Whether or not he wins the primary, his powerful presence on the campaign trail as an articulate critic of Bush's foreign and national-security policy is sure to hurt the president. But in the near term, the problem for Clark is one of image, of how to replace the stumbling novice backpedaler with the engaging and nimble stump speaker and glad-hander.
The latter was evident at DePauw during a small, private forum with students after the speech. Hit with trenchant questions posed in less than deferential tones about everything from his abortion-rights and pro-affirmative-action views to his historically Republican inclinations, Clark responded with clarity and earnestness. Asked how a general recently ensconced in a Belgian chateau could relate to the average American, Clark spoke of his pre-four-star days, when he lived close to the bone. He recalled wrecking the family car as a lieutenant colonel; with only $4,000 in savings, he spent a leave in the Fort Carson, Colo., auto shop rebuilding the vehicle. Queried about affirmative action, he discussed how, as a major general at Fort Hood, Texas, several events forced him to recognize prejudice and discrimination in his beloved Army.
Explaining his history of voting mainly Republican, he presented a story of evolution fused with apostasy, of how, as a young officer, he'd faced a society hostile to the military. "In the summer of 1971," Clark recalled, "I was a captain, and 100,000 people converged on the Pentagon, throwing blood on the steps. They probably weren't going to vote Republican, and it was pretty clear most of us in the military weren't going to vote with them." Yet after the Cold War ended, he continued, when it came to the state of the armed forces, "Republicans became more interested in weapons than in people. I found that the Democrats believed more in people. I saw few in the Republican Party who had the right answers."
Clark ultimately charmed his questioner, ending on an endearing note: "This is a Methodist college, right? It was? You know the story of the prodigal son? My real father was a Jewish lawyer in Chicago. I recently found a cardboard square that says, 'Delegate, 1932 Democratic Convention, Chicago.'" Clark paused, a self-effacing grin spreading across his face. "I'm just coming back."
This went over well with the crowd, which responded with applause and laughter, but Clark's words were more than a tad disingenuous: The same arguments for military reform that have gone unheeded in the Bush administration also languished under Bill Clinton's. But given the choice between such sleight-of-hand rhetoric from a former general and the Bush administration's Iraqi and economic muddles, some traditionally on the right, it's becoming clear, will take the former.